Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Observations from The Writer's Voice Slush Pile (and an opportunity for feedback!)

Whew! Yeah, it takes a while to read through 159 entries and pass judgment on them, but that’s just what I’ve done.

I know, some of you out there are saying, “But Rena, you’re not a judge.” This is correct. I’m a writer seeking representation, but the last time I dug through a big slush pile, a few things jumped out at me. Two years ago the trends were first person present tense. They were everywhere. Now? Not so much (though many first person present still do the dreaded double verbing, more on that in a bit). (though there were a ton of aliens taking the place that paranormal creatures used to have, so that was interesting)

This time around what struck me most was how some pages DEMANDED my attention, and others just sort of shuffled through the line. What was amazing about the pages that really caught my attention was that they weren’t the usual sort for me. I’ve always called myself an explosion sort of girl, so when something opens with action, I feel like that should grab me. Standing on the edge of a cliff, about to fall to certain doom? That should totally be my wheelhouse, and yet those openings just didn’t do it for me. No idea why (sweet mother of science, I hope I’m not developing a mature palette after all of these years!).

So onto the main event:

I ranked all of the entries: Yes, No, or Maybe. I had grades of maybe (yes maybe, no maybe and maybe), but for this reporting there’s only three flavors.

Yes: 18
Maybe: 77
No: 61

Entries by Men: 19
Entries by Women: 133
Unknown: 7

Genres of the Yes
Adult contemp
Adult Sci Fi 2
Romantic Suspense
YA contemp 2
YA Historical
YA Thriller 2
YA Sci Fi 3
MG contemp 3

So what landed someone in the No pile:

Note: If I’m writing about it here, then there was more than one person who did it. As in more than three. If you think I’ve picked you out specifically in my comments here, just know that’s not the case. There were at least three people who did it.

This time around there were two things that drop an entry into my no pile (As in No, I wouldn’t keep reading this). The biggest reason to land in the no pile was a concept I wasn’t that fond of, coupled with writing bad need of an edit. This is my opinion by the way, but if your first page is sprinkled with double verbs and words like ‘that’ and ‘just’ in your first page (in a first page contest!) then it’s VERY likely the rest of the manuscript is going to be like that. I know, some people don’t understand why I’m so anti double verbing, or what it is that I have against the word that (which I use all the time). In this case, it showed a lack of polish.

Double verbs—I was sitting, or I am running—drive me insane because there are specific uses for this construct. In the past tense, I was sitting, it indicates that the person narrating is in a reminiscent sort of mood. This is the older person reliving their past (e.g. I was sitting on the porch, waiting for the mailman, when the man of my dreams strolled down the lane). That’s fine if you are having a character have a stroll down memory lane, but once you do it every turn, you’re sticking the narrator between the reader and the story not once, but twice (it’s filtered through the narrator who is experiencing it and the older narrator who is telling it). And you’ve given something away: the narrator lives to the end so they can tell the story like this. No bueno. In present tense, the problem is that it’s just lazy. I am running. Why not I run. And this next bit is personal to my tastes, but I am running reminds me of those guys who call sporting events. “Hasek blocks the puck and passes it up to Datsyuk. Datsyuk is carrying the puck. He’s looking to make a pass.” This could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Other reasons for landing in the No pile: I get worried when I read a query for something sounding like one genre and being told it’s another. Paranormal romance was the big culprit here. There were all kinds of genres being listed instead of the obvious one. So, if your MC is abducted by aliens who give her werewolf like powers, but it’s scientifically explained, this does not automatically make it science fiction. If the main plot is about how your MC falls in love with someone despite her mutations, it’s romance. And if your query spends more than half its time talking about the romance, I’m assuming that romance is more than half the book, it should be listed in the genre.

Why does this make me hit the no button? Either, the writer knows they’ve written a paranormal romance, and they know the market for that genre is really REALLY tight, or they don’t. If they know, then the real path isn’t to accentuate the romance in the query letter. Develop other lines, because the surest way to upset a reader is to tell them about how a story is all about space ships and genetic mutations and then make it all about romance. That’s the whole point of genre labeling. I don’t go to the romance section to read about Rockets, and I don’t expect the romance crowd to come to the sci fi section to find true love. Genres are your friend, even if it’s super crowded. If the writer doesn’t know that they’ve written a paranormal romance and dressed it up in super shiny Magic Realism clothing, then I worry about how many other traps they’ve fallen into. This is all about confidence, but if you write, you must read. You need to know what else is out there like yours (this is why I read slush piles whenever they’re available, how else will we know what we’re up against in the slush?).

What got you in the maybe pile:

Okay concept, okay writing. Nothing spectacular. Totally competent. And yet, somehow, my time wasn’t demanded of me (I’m a working mom, you have to demand my time). So there were lots of really good entries that land in the maybe pile because they aren’t for me, they started in the wrong spot (or with something that I really didn’t want to read).

Or really good concept, but very lackluster writing.

Terrible concept with really good writing.

At the end of the day, your creature feature has a ton of competition (and I’ve read a bunch of them!), and even if your writing is really great, I’m not that interested in reading another Interview with a Vampire (or Twilight, or Walking Dead, or Teen Wolf, or Buffy The Vampire Slayer—Unless Joss is writing it, that is, and then yeah, I’m totally reading that one). So yeah, even if the writing is too good to just toss it into the No, sometimes, it’s just not going to be enough to knock one of the Yes entries off their thrones.

And to get a Yes:

The writing had to sing. I don’t know how many of you can see it yet (if you read enough slush, it become apparent), but some manuscripts just sound like the stuff you would pick up in the book store. There is a rhythm, a cadence, to the way they read. The words are the perfect balance of not too many to slow me down, and not so few that I’ve gotten lost along the way.

*Sigh* I wish there were something more to say about that, but trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. But here’s the thing: that perfect balance is DIFFERENT for EVERYONE. Yeah, I know. Like for real. I’ll read something and it will just punch me in the feels. Great writing, lovely concept, brilliant execution, and I hand it to my BFFs don’t like it. Go figure.

The other way to get a Yes was to have a SPECTACULAR concept—one that made me go into fits of apoplexy because I couldn’t read the post RIGHT NOW!!!!—coupled with almost there writing. As in, just a few bits of trouble.

So that’s it from my end. I’m going to post after the 10th to talk about subjectivity, when I compare my Yes pile to those who get picked for the contest. The last time I did this, I was shocked to discover that an entry that yeses with exclamation points next to it in my book, didn’t make the final (and one where I’d written in capital letters NO) did.

I know people are probably wondering where they landed on my scale of Yes No Maybe, but, I rarely tell the actual rank. I will if you ask nicely, but seeing as how I am just one writer in a sea of other writers, my opinion doesn’t really count for much. However, I do have comments on EACH and EVERY entry (unless it’s locked up under tumblr. Cursed tumblr). If you want to know what I thought of yours, leave me a comment with your entry number and your  email (write the word at instead of using the sign, and you can ask me to delete the comment later if you wish). This isn’t confidential (feel free to post it somewhere else while saying disparaging things about my parents’ marital status if you like), but I prefer for the option of privacy to be yours (this is why I don’t tweet my feedback; there is nothing worse than expecting someone to love your work and hearing in a public venue that it wasn’t the case). But pretty please, don’t come back at me with your hurt feelings. I’ll try to say constructive things, but feedback can really sting. I know what it’s like to write a novel. I know what it’s like to have the core of a novel completely destroyed because it’s basically a retelling of XYZ and there are fifty billion of those on the market right now. Please also keep in mind that I’m just one person. I’m not even an agented writer. All I have is years of experience, and the knowledge of what I do and do not like.

Good luck everyone.


  1. I didn't read them all, but I know I saw some cool ones this year!
    Good luck, Rena!

  2. I would love feedback when this is all over :)

    1. I would love feedback my entry is #74 and my email is takenbyavamp(at)hotmail(dot) com

  3. I'd love to hear your thoughts on mine, #87, GRIT OF BERTH AND STONE. (dearlisadunn at gmail.com). (Please delete comment after reading). And thank you so much for doing this. I can't imagine the hours that went into this!

  4. I can't wait to see how your list matches up with who's picked! And when do we find that out? This Friday, right

  5. I would love to read your feedback on my entry #114. My email angelamariedambrosio (at) gmail (dot) com I've been at this a while so my skin is thick. thanks!

  6. First of all, I think you are amazing for reading them all and offering feedback. That's extremely generous of you! I would love to hear your thoughts. I rely on feedback to keep growing and improving as a writer. Any feedback is good feedback!

    My entry is #99 and I'm kirstendsquires(at)gmail(dot)com

    Thank you again! :)

  7. Thanks for your hard work! I love feedback and stats and what works for different people.

  8. How cool of you to do this! I'm #77 leah at leahpetersen dot com.


  9. Great post, Rena - very insightful (& I think you've probably been much busier than me if you've got comments for every entry!).

  10. I would love to hear your feedback and thank you so much for doing this!

    My entry was #36 and my email is kate.liz.brown10193(at)gmail(dot)com

  11. Thank you for going through all these. :-) I'd love to see what you thought of mine. #59 ERMcKeon (at) gmail (dot) com

  12. I'm intrigued and would be interested to hear your comment about mine, #46. ali dot borger at gmail dot com.

  13. Wow, what a generous offer. Thank you for writing this post and outlining the eval process for us. I'll jump at your offer of feedback: My entry is #119 and my add is arielj.van at gmail dot com.

    (My Google login is decrepit but Wordpress is giving me error messages. My real blog is returnofthebrickhouse.com.)

  14. Thanks for taking the time to put together this post. Very interesting. I'm open to feedback. Would love to hear from you at NayWrites at gmail dot com

  15. So, if the MC is abducted by aliens who give her werewolf like powers, but it’s scientifically explained, what genre IS it? Anne McCaffrey's books had dragons, but they were science fiction. Where are the lines?

    (Entry #29)

    1. Anne McCaffrey fought for decades to keep hers in Science Fiction land. At the time, Fantasy was a wasteland of chain bikinis and swords (think Boris Valejo cover art). It was considered very low brow at the time. And her stuff did have a science background. If you read the whole series, I think it qualifies as sci fi. If you just read Dragon Drums, then yeah, it has more of the flavors of fantasy.

      I think hers is a classic example of Science Fantasy (my very favorite genre!). The problem with werewolf powers in science fiction is that the story really belongs over in the paranormal crowd. In YA, that's sometimes shelved differently from YA science fiction. With Anne's work, it could slide because there are almost no book stores with separate science fiction and fantasy sections. I feel that it's a shame they're doing this for YA. The problem is that the paranormal feeling book will not sell well shelved next to the space operas and military fiction. They would sell better over by the other paranormals.

      Also, I can't send you feedback without an email, sorry!

    2. e-mail is tbrosz (at) ionix (dot) net, or you can use the one on my webpage. Heck, you can leave feedback on the entry if you want. Thanks!

  16. I would love to hear what you thought of my entry, #48. My email is kimberlycallard(at)hotmail(dot)com. Thank you so much for doing this. (I still haven't made my way through all the entries, but I'm working on it!)

  17. Thanks so much for doing this! I would love your feedback. Mine is 134 and my email is andreacrum7 at gmail dot com. I would really appreciate it if you delete this post afterwards if possible. Thanks.

  18. Thanks for reading and taking notes! I'd love to hear your feedback, my entry is #96 - it's all a learning experience, so no need to sugarcoat anything, honest constructive criticism is most welcome.
    crazylea7 at gmail dot com
    Thanks again!

  19. What a great article! Thanks for all your hard work on this contest. Best of luck to you in your writing endeavors! I would also love to hear your feedback be it good, bad or ugly! I'm #24 My email is sharilschwarz at aol dot com
    Thank you!

  20. I'm impressed at all the hard work you put into this when you're not even a judge! I ultimately decided to go indie, so I didn't enter the contest this year, but I agree with a lot of your observations, based on the entries I've looked at so far. Once again, it's pretty depressing to see so little historical out of so many entries. I love this genre so much, but it seems like everyone would rather write anything else.

    I completely agree about first-person present tense. It pretty much makes my eyes glaze over, and makes me immediately stop reading, unless it's truly merited by the subject matter. To be honest, it just seems like mindlessly following a trend these days, instead of a carefully-considered decision and only coming after getting a lot of experience with writing past tense. I also tend to be more likely to read on if it's third-person. First-person has become so oversaturated, it's honestly hard for me to distinguish these narrators since many of them sound so alike.

  21. There are so many elements to a good story, to master them all takes daily learning and practice. Every day I learn something new, getting a good, thoughtful critique is such a blessing. Writers should appreciate that.

    I don't like first person. present tense. Maybe I am old school, but when I do read it, I pretty much switch it to past tense in my head...very annoying! It's a personal thing.

    Double verbs, is that the same as passive voice? Yep, they are slowing. I suggest people run a search on was and ing...remove the unnecessary ones. (Though in the beginning, I was confusing passive voice and gerunds and taking them all out and ending up with really stiff, horrible writing.)

  22. Passive voice drives me crazy. Learning to not do it was hard (college) and I still do it subconsciously. Hopefully caught all of mine. Would like feedback on my entry #41 email is kmmpom@gmail.com.

  23. This is fascinating.... so aliens are the new paranormal huh?? And first person present tense isn't as common... all good things to know. I've learned tons by reading contest entries too. And I'm immediately going now to look at my MS to see how many double verbs and filler words I have (I used run my text through an online grammar filter to find these things, but I've gotten lazy lately. Not good. Thank you for the reminder!)

  24. I think its wonderful that you are offering your feedback to all the entrants! I know I enjoy getting any feedback so I can push forward in my knowledge of the craft. Can you please send your feedback for #5 to emilygmoorewriter at yahoo.com, and delete from this feed once you have? Thanks!

  25. What a great gesture. I wish you the best of luck with your writing and would be happy to critique anything you have that may need another set of eyes. I'm #156 for feedback and my email is gpcolo at gmail.com. Thanks again


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